George Floyd Protest

The Thomas Circle Remembers Emmett Till to George Floyd by Harold Bell

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I came into the living room on Wednesday, June 4, 2020, and I found my wife Hattie crying. I asked her what was wrong, but I saw she was watching the news and the report that the three other officers had been arrested in the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. She said, “I wish daddy and mommy were here to see this.” I understood exactly what she was saying!

This is a little known black history fact as it relates to the bravery of black South Carolinians.

They help create America’s first civil rights movement. The pictorial history can be found of the movement in the book “Out of the Box in Dixie”. Photographed and chronicled by civil rights famed photographer Cecil J. Williams. The book clearly shows the modern-day movement started in Clarendon, South Carolina long before Brown vs. Board of Education, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, and the lunch counter sit-ins.

Author Cecil Williams is a cousin of Dr. Charles H.Thomas Jr. Dr. Thomas was one of the leaders of the movement when it moved from Clarendon to Orangeburg, South Carolina in the ’50s. Cecil was still in high school but was armed with a camera and he would travel.

The Godfather of the civil rights movement was a brother by the name of Rev. Joseph DeLaine. In 1949 Rev. DeLaine and friend Harry Briggs organized a group of parents in Clarendon and formed a picket line and challenged school segregation in the county.

The Briggs vs Elliott petition bearing Harry Briggs’ name was the forerunner of Brown vs. Board of Education. Their challenge was the first to move to the Supreme Court. Several years later four other cases would evolve into Brown vs Board of Education. Famed civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall would represent the plaintiffs. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

My Spingarn high school basketball teammate the late Spotswood Bolling would be the lead plaintiff in integrating the Washington, DC Public School system (Bolling vs Board of Education). We thank Harry Briggs and Rev. DeLaine for their sacrifices and courage against all odds.

The white folks of Clarendon County also thanked Rev. DeLaine by burning his church to the ground. He would later have to flee for his life to New York City. The Clarendon County police took out a warrant for his arrest after he returned gunfire defending his family and home from members of the Klu Klux Klan. In New York City in 1956 the First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attended a rally on behalf of Rev. DeLaine at MadisonSquareGarden with actress Tulaah Bankhead.

With Rev. DeLaine exiled to New York City, the Clarendon County Klan thought they had ended the fight for freedom in South Carolina but his neighbors in Orangeburg County had his back.

Attorney Thurgood Marshall would become an advisor to the Orangeburg freedom fighters led by a “Dream Team” of civil rights leaders that included members of the NAACP, clergy, and the late Dr. Charles H. Thomas Jr. a Professor of Psychology at South Carolina StateUniversity. Thurgood Marshall would go on to become the first black judge to be seated on the Supreme Court.

During one student uprising, the OrangeburgCounty police swooped down on protesters and locked up over 350 students. They were held in an outdoor jail like a stockade, it reminded many of Nazi Germany. The New York Times published a front-page picture of students in the stockade.

Dr. Thomas and the entire Thomas clan were on the front lines of the civil rights movement. The Thomas Family without a doubt is the “First Family of Civil Rights” in Orangeburg County.

On several occasions, Dr. Thomas had to put up his house for collateral to get his children and other students out of jail. It was the norm for Atty. Mathew Perry to be summoned to get Hattie, Charlease, Loretta, Reggie, and Ann all out of the OrangeburgCounty jail. Cops and judges knew Thomas’ family by their name.

It was definitely a family affair. The family participation included Dr. Thomas’ wife Elease, sister Nancy and brother Milbren. They could be seen protecting his back on the picket line during marches in downtown Orangeburg. Future sons-in-law Weldon Hammond was a student and Robert Stevenson was teaching at South Carolina State. They also prove to be pains in the ass to law-enforcement.

Ann Thomas Riley the youngest daughter would be one of the first blacks to integrate the Orangeburg all-white high school and Harold Riley her husband was one the students shot during the “Orangeburg Massacre.”

Schoolteacher Gloria Rackley was another important member of the Thomas clan she was known to the family as Aunt Gloria. She was a true warrior where ever you saw the Thomas clan she was just a step behind. Her ties were so strong to the family and the NAACP the OrangeburgCounty school system threatened her with dismissal if she did not cut her ties.

She walked away and continued to fight.

When Charlease was arrested the cops tried to separate her from the rest of the protesters because she was Dr. Thomas’ daughter. It was Gloria Rackley who got between her and the cops and said “no way.” Gloria’s daughter Lurma would later become the Press Secretary for DC Mayor Marion Barry and now is the PR rep for Atlanta, Georgia Urban League Director.

The fight for civil rights got so intense in Orangeburg the Rev. Martin Luther King (insert) made his presence known at a rally as a spectator in January 1963.

Dr. Thomas’s leadership as President of the local chapter of the NAACP is legendary. His advisor and right hand were Attorney Mathew Perry. Attorney Perry would show up in a courtroom and the white judges would immediately take a bathroom break and sometimes would not come back.

Attorney Perry would go on to become the first black judge to be seated on the South Carolina Court of Appeals.

Dr. Thomas started and founded voter registration on the campus of South Carolina State University, it would spread throughout the state. He was also a pain in the ass for white folks and the Uncle Toms in Orangeburg. The white folks had their “House Negroes” who would sit in on the strategy meetings and report the upcoming plans to their white bosses. It got so bad Dr. Thomas and the other coordinators of the marches and boycotts had to have two meetings. In the first meeting, they would give out misleading information and plans for the ‘House Negroes’ to carry back to their bosses. The second meeting would be held to discuss the true plan. Sixty years later that type of plantation mentality is still holding us back.

The Orangeburg Massacre was the worst murder of students on an educational institution in the history of this country (including Kent State).

White law-enforcement would lead Claflin and South Carolina State students on peaceful daylight marches to downtown Orangeburg but under the cover of darkness, they became deadly assassins.

In 1968 highway patrolmen and local cops shot and killed three students and wounded 27 more. My brother-in-law Harold Riley a native of Orangeburg took two bullets that night and watched his friend Samuel Hammond die. One bullet is still lodged in his leg. These hideous acts were carried out without provocation on the campus of South Carolina State University.

On that fateful night, students were first participating in a peaceful march and demonstration at a local segregated bowling alley just off-campus.

There might have been some name-calling among the student-directed toward law-enforcement. The cops evidently took it personal and without warning started shooting in the direction of the students who retreated to their campus. When the smoke had cleared three students were dead. The cops claimed they were fired on first and forty years later they have yet to come up with a smoking gun. In 2009 despite a black man in the White House, there is still Justice and Just-Us in America!

I read a story titled “The Morning After” in the Washington Post written by black columnist Eugene Robinson. The story was related to the election of America’s first Black President I almost brought up my breakfast of grits, eggs, and sausage. Robinson was interviewing Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon John Lewis and said something like “I think John Lewis is one of the most courageous men of the civil rights crusade. I thought of the beating he took on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the scars his body still bears.” What makes Robinson’s observation so ridiculous is the fact that this brother has roots in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His father taught at Claflin University during the height of the civil rights crusade and he does not have a clue. The struggles of the pioneers in Clarendon and Orangeburg counties were never mentioned in his column.

The real heroes of the civil rights crusade were young black men like the three brothers who made the ultimate sacrifice, they gave their lives.

John Lewis’ contributions are commendable but they are pale in comparison.

Highway Patrolmen stand over the fallen bodies of two students Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammond, and Henry Smith died like animals with white cops standing over them with guns pointed and yelling “Die nigger die” and they did. No man or woman in America should ever have to die like that and for Eugene Robinson not to be aware of the sacrifices of those young men is another crime in the black community. But there he is in the Washington Post and on National television every week claiming to be an expert on Black America. For this, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Something is wrong with this picture!

In the State Capitol of Columbia South Carolina, there stands a tall imposing statue of a man who stood and still stands for white supremacy—the late Senator Strom Thurmond.

During daylight hours he was seen preaching hate niggers and at night he was sleeping with one. He fathered a black child out of wedlock and unlike some deadbeat dads, he made sure she was properly cared for and received a good education. She was enrolled at South Carolina State where he would often visit her to make sure the hired hands were doing their job properly.

Dr. Thomas and Senator Thurmond had several eyeballs to eyeball confrontations during the movement. They would later become great friends out of respect for each other.

When Dr. Thomas decided that he had enough of the “Player Haters” and envy and jealous Negroes in Orangeburg he moved to DC his adopted hometown. It was Strom Thurmond who recommended him for a Presidential appointment to the Richard Nixon White House. Dr. Thomas would accept an appointment to become the Director of Equal Opportunity Employment for the United States Post Office.

Thanks to Dr. Thomas, Senator Thurmond and I became fast friends and he became a big supporter of Kids In Trouble, Inc. One Christmas he assigned his office staff to help me coordinate my toys for tots Christmas party and wrote several letters of reference for me.

Dr. Charles H. Thomas Jr. was inducted into the Black South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2005.

Congratulations to the trailblazing Tuskegee Airmen and the Little Rock 9 who all received invitations to the swearing-in of President Barrack Obama. Someone dropped the ball when they failed to invite The Thomas Circle.
Singing legend Sam Cooke had a concert in Columbia South Carolina during the height of the movement. He performed in front of a segregated audience. It is rumored that experience inspired him to write his classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”  Sam Cooke was a prophet.

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